As Central Australia's deserts increasingly turn into graveyards for small animals, scientists are taking matters into their own hands.Sydney University professor Chris Dickman has been studying the Simpson Desert, on the Queensland-Northern Territory border, for almost 30 years.
Because the changing climate had enabled predators to flourish and caused habitats to become exposed, Dr Dickman said they had been forced to give a 'leg up' to the little guys.
"We realised that in these vast, expansive landscapes, there isn't much you can do to contain predators' numbers directly," he said.
"Unless you're out there all the time, it just doesn't work, [so] the best thing you can do is try alternative techniques."
Photo: These chick wire tunnels are acting as new homes for the Simpson Desert's small creatures, like mice and lizards. (ABC Western Queensland: Harriet Tatham)
Scientists turn into architectsOn Ethabuka Station, 180 kilometres west of Bedourie in far south-west Queensland, Dr Dickman and his team have begun designing predator-proof homes for the desert's smaller creatures to hide in.
The chicken wire tunnels are 50 metres long, and allow small animals to run in and out as they please.
"You can't stop the predators from moving into the environment, so at least you can give the prey a chance to get away," he said.While the concept is not new, Dr Dickman said it was the first time the strategy had been employed in an arid landscape.
And to the surprise of the scientists, the wild animals have recognised the man-made homes.
"We do know that there's a strong behavioural response," he said.
"The animals recognise these structures and move to them and use them quite intensively [and] that's the first step to ensuring these populations will be secure in the longer term."
Cannot do it aloneSydney University ecology professor Glenda Wardle said it was a promising step for Australia's native animals, which will be very important when the ecosystem is under stress.
"The weather is changing; droughts are becoming more frequent, and longer, and when drought is broken, the rain events are large," Dr Wardle said.
"After that it becomes risky, and the reason it's risky is because there are introduced predators.
"Given the difficulty of removing the introduced cat and fox from a system like this, it seems very important to take a proactive approach."
Photo: Dr Glenda Wardle and volunteers unload the car, ready for a day of research. (ABC Western Queensland: Harriet Tatham)
But Dr Wardle said she was aware that the experiment would have little impact if based on Ethabuka Nature Reserve alone, and she is encouraging graziers to help out.
"Pastoralists have a big demand to make a living on really, what is very dry country," she said.
"We need to do better to resource them to bring conservation [into] part of what they're achieving."
Protecting small animals for next generationAmanda Warr is a former grazier whose family now manages Ethabuka Nature Reserve.
With her background in sheep farming, Ms Warr said she was convinced pastoralists are passionate about land management.
"I do believe that most graziers are conservationists; they can't afford to not be conservative with their land and how they run their properties," she said.But as much as the project is about protecting native species, Ms Warr said she was motivated by her two young daughters.
"I just look at my children, and they've been given the experience to live out here and they get to see the most amazing things that a lot of other children would miss out on," she said.
"If we can help bring the numbers back up so they're there for the future, I think it's a great thing."